Observer Editorial: Speak up, this and every month
Observer Editorial Board | Friday, April 23, 2021
Editor’s note: This editorial includes discussions of sexual abuse and violence. A list of sexual assault reporting options and on-campus resources can be found on the Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross websites.
Last week, a conglomerate of tri-campus groups led by Saint Mary’s Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) and Notre Dame’s Gender Relations Center (GRC) stood with sexual assault survivors and marched against sexual violence during this year’s Take Back the Night. The event corresponded with the recognition of April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time dedicated to increasing public awareness of issues surrounding sexual assault, promoting educational opportunities and elevating the voices of survivors. This month is also a time to prioritize prevention by advocating for better public policy and cultural practices, in order to protect potential victims and survivors.
The issue of sexual violence is prevalent everywhere — not only in our dorms and on our campus but around the world. According to a recent report from the U.K., 97% of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment. As of 2018, 81% of women in the U.S. have faced sexual harassment. In the U.S., one in six women will experience sexual assault.
Sexual assault also disproportionately affects marginalized communities in the U.S. According to a 2018 investigation by NPR, individuals with intellectual disabilities are seven times more likely to experience sexual violence. In addition, one in five Black women are survivors of sexual assault and over half of Native American women experience sexual violence in their lifetime. To advocate for survivors of sexual violence, we must consider and be aware of the intersections of oppression and rape culture.
While cisgender women are at an elevated risk of sexual violence, this affects many others. For instance, transgender college students are at higher risk for sexual violence. Twenty-one percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of cisgender women and 4% of cisgender men. Additionally, cisgender men aged 18-24 in college are approximately five times more likely than non-students of the same age to be a victim of rape or sexual assault.
In Notre Dame’s 2020 campus climate survey, 4% of female respondents and 1% of male respondents indicated they had experienced non-consensual sexual intercourse as a student, and 16% of female students and 4% of male students said they had personally experienced other forms of non-consensual sexual contact while enrolled at Notre Dame.
At Notre Dame, there is limited transparent and accessible data on sexual assault. Because the Notre Dame Police Department operates as a private branch of a private University and not as a public agency, it is exempt by Indiana law from making records on the specific location of reported incidents — such as dorms, among other student spaces — publicly available.
This decision dates back to November 2016, when the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of NDPD (which was NDSP at the time) in regard to a records request made by ESPN in 2015. The court concluded the department was not a public agency under state law. That same month in 2016, the South Bend Tribune and The Observer filed records requests with the NDSP, all of which the University denied, citing the ruling in the ESPN case.
Earlier that year, however, the Indiana General Assembly had changed the definition of “public agency” to include private university police departments. This had been the result of a “technical printing error” that was to be amended. After both the South Bend Tribune and The Observer filed a complaint with the PAC office (Public Access Counselor), it ruled in Notre Dame’s favor in February 2017. As a result, NDPD’s crime log still contains very few details of reported incidents and, at the moment, the department is not required by law to make more specific information publicly available.
Yet having access to such information would better empower our communities to enact effective change and take the necessary steps to prevent future occurrences of sexual assault on our campuses. That’s why we’re calling upon the University and NDPD to be more transparent with students regarding reported incidents of sexual violence — because members of our tri-campus community deserve transparency from the systems designed to protect them. Additionally, we call upon the administrations of Holy Cross College and Saint Mary’s College to allow for easier public access to sexual assault report data on their respective campuses — both colleges have not updated their campus crime statistics since 2019.
As we approach the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we also want to encourage our communities to continue increasing awareness, all year round, about sexual violence and how it relates to the tri-campus community. People in the age range of 18-24 are at higher risk of experiencing sexual violence, an issue that is particularly prevalent at colleges and universities.
But there is more to rape culture than sexual assault. Combating rape culture also involves shutting down language that perpetuates sexual violence — which can take many forms, including derogatory jokes and off-handed comments that blame victims or make light of sexual assault. It involves being active bystanders even in spaces not commonly thought to be dangerous, because you never know what someone has been through and how that kind of atmosphere affects them. Most importantly, it means continuing to support survivors. Stand up against a culture of silence by listening to and believing survivors.
Next year, there will be two class years of undergraduate students who have never experienced a non-pandemic semester. Given the potential for a return to a more typical dorm and off-campus social and party culture, we strongly urge our tri-campus community to be intentional in protecting and caring for each other, especially our rising first-years and sophomores, in order to foster a safer, more welcoming community.